Trying to relax: NMU women, men get time to recuperate from 1st half of season

NMU's Amber Huebner is fouled by Purdue's Brittany Barnard in the first quarter as she goes up for a layup. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — With the holidays approaching, many of us in the Upper Peninsula will be looking for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

The Northern Michigan University basketball teams aren’t any different. Both the Northern men and women have had great starts to their seasons, but the games haven’t been easy. So with the Wildcats not having a game until next week, both squads can just fine tune some things and take some time to recuperate.

Northern’s men’s team (8-1, 3-1 GLIAC) will get some chance to rest this week, but they’ll have a tough task ahead of them next week as they head to the Bellarmine Tournament. The tournament will give the Wildcats a break from GLIAC play and according to assistant coach Charles Belt, a chance to prove themselves against some quality teams.

“It’s interesting because in my time in the GLIAC, my six years, this pause in GLIAC play isn’t bad,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a chance to reflect and gives you a chance to see where everybody is and gives us a chance to watch a lot of games to kind of see what these guys planning to do. If you keep throwing wave after wave of GLIAC opponents, it does get, not tiring, but our guys like the ability to play teams that we’re not going to play. The other part about this particular event is that it’s going to be a blockbuster. It’s a heck of a field. You think amongst the four teams there, there are four losses combined. So I would say that our guys are really excited too for the opportunity to play regional games against teams that are going to be in the NCAA Tournament.

“For us, like last year and even this year, we always have something to prove. We’re that team and we’re that mentality. We have the mindset and hunger of us against everyone and no one every takes us seriously. Coming into this event, I would say people probably would’ve picked us as the fourth best team coming in. Barry loses in the Elite Eight to Ferris by three and Bellarmine is always tremendous. They’ve been top three in the country for years and Southern Indiana has made multiple trips. So we would be the program within the last five or 10 teams that of the four is the least recognized and our guys know that. We’re coming in with the opportunity to play two regional opponents that are really good and that have tournament experience and prove that we belong again.”

NMU's Carson Wonders patiently waits to shoot a short jumper in the second half as Purdue's Ronald Karenzi goes for a block. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

What the Wildcats have proven that they belong at the top of the GLIAC North Division and that they have arguably the two best players in the conference. Isaiah Johnson and Naba Echols are currently first and second place in the league in points per game and have won four of the five North Player of the Week awards with Echols winning it on Monday.

With the award piling up and NMU playing at a high level, Belt is feeling good about his team as it closes out the first half of the year.

“In terms of where we are at this point in the season, we’ve progressed properly,” he said. “We’re getting to a point where we’re understanding everything that has been preached up to this point. A lot of times in the course of the season, it’s difficult to monitor or to checkpoint where you are. I think this year, the way it’s broken down for us, it’s actually gone pretty well.”

Things have also gone pretty well for the women’s team, which is on a five-game winning streak including two blowout victories this past week at home. However, Wildcats women’s coach Troy Mattson still thinks his team has room to improve heading into final game Monday before the holiday break.

“We made some personnel adjustments a couple of weeks ago and I think it paid big dividends, just in the morale of our team and what we’re trying to strive and do here,” he said. “So that was a big plus for us in the past couple of weeks. As I’ve been telling you, we’ve been working on a lot of new things. Even though it’s kind of showing in the score with our defense in the past four games, this team can still do a way better job. We are breaking down in a lot of areas. The hardest thing is that you don’t get a chance to practice much when you’re playing two nights a week and you’ve got to take a day off. It’s been kind of difficult to work on and really fine tune our defense. So now we’ve got a few days this week before our next game on Monday and then when we come back from break, we’re probably going to get another week to I think really get our defense and our offense playing at the level that it should be playing at.

While the men head off to the Bellarmine Tournament, the women will have a home game Monday against Lewis, a team that the Wildcats beat in their season opener. Even though Northern has taken down the Flyers once already, Mattson knows that it won’t be easy to do it again.

“They’re a top 25 team,” he said. “We beat them in the first game of the year down there (at Hillsdale) and they probably have the best scoring center in the country. Her name is Jessica Kelliher and she’s Elizabeth Kelliher’s sister up at Michigan Tech. They’re going to go toe-to-toe on Saturday, so that should be quite fun to watch. She can catch the ball and finish probably better than anyone in the country. She was an All-American last year, so she’s priority number one to get her slowed down. They’re still ranked in the top 25 and it was amazing because we beat them and they went from No. 23 to 10 in the country. We had a little gaffe against (Minnesota) Duluth, so we didn’t even get a sniff of getting ranked. They turn around and Lewis beats Grand Valley (State) and that’s why they move from whatever they did up to No. 10. This is all going to play out in the end and it doesn’t really matter. Our goal is to be a great basketball team when March comes and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

To be that kind of team this spring though, Mattson thinks that this short break between the Lewis game along with the long one before NMU’s next GLIAC game Jan. 3 will be a benefit for the Wildcats.

“We needed to rest a little bit,” he said. “It was a pretty big grind for the whole stretch. We’re going to be back in the gym tomorrow and some of the girls are shooting right now on their own, but we’ll be back in the gym tomorrow. We’re finally going to get the chance to work on some things other than a lot of film and just the very basics of what we’re trying to do. Just really get this finalized here in the next few weeks, so that we can be the team that I think we can be.”